The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a NASA Federally Funded Research and Development Center focused on space exploration. Innovative technology created and/or used by JPL has taken humanity far beyond regions of space where we can actually travel ourselves. In order to enable such challenging flight missions, JPL utilizes state-of-the-art propulsion systems. Activities in advanced deep space propulsion are essential at JPL in order to expedite the adoption of new propulsion technologies and have full confidence the flight systems will meet all mission requirements.
The Electric Propulsion (EP) Group at JPL performs two principal functions: First, it provides technological expertise for robotic spacecraft mission planners, implementers, and operators in support of current and near term flight projects. This expertise is geared toward A) increasing the reliability and life of EP systems as well as, B) reducing cost and mission time for spacecraft that would otherwise use conventional chemical propulsion systems. Specific examples of recent project support include the Ion Propulsion System (IPS) on the Dawn spacecraft and the development of the flight Colloid thrusters for ST7.
The second function of the Electric Propulsion Group is to identify and evaluate, through experiment and simulation, the feasibility of advanced propulsion concepts that may lead to significant advances in space transportation capability. Such new propulsion systems will be necessary to enable fast robotic exploration of the solar system (including sample return missions, outer planet orbiters and landers) and of the local interstellar neighborhood.
Trailblazing has been the business of JPL since it was established by the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. Pushing the outer edge of exploration, in fact, is the reason JPL exists as a NASA laboratory. JPL’s Electric Propulsion Group is proud to be a part in this on-going exploration of the frontiers of space.
- The Asteroid Return Mission concept envisioned by our own Dr. John Brophy has been in the news quite a bit lately. A key technology enabling this mission is Magnetic Shielding in Hall thrusters, described below. The original study sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Science can be found here.
- Results from a two-year program aimed at demonstrating the first principles of magnetic shielding in Hall thrusters were recently published in Applied Physics Letters. (Mikellides, I. G., Katz, I., Hofer, R. R., and Goebel, D. M., "Magnetic Shielding of Walls from the Unmagnetized Ion Beam in a Hall Thruster," Applied Physics Letters, 102, 2, 023509 (2013).) Magnetic shielding is a technique that radically reduces wall erosion in Hall thrusters, effectively eliminating thruster lifetime as a practical concern in space mission design.
Launched Sept. 2007, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is being propelled by a trio of NSTAR ion thrusters on its journey to visit the two heaviest main-belt asteroids, Vesta and Ceres. (Credit: Background- William K. Hartmann, Courtesy of UCLA; image-NASA/MCREL)